The rhetoric of change: 5 things that bug me


January 8th, 2014

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I have been mulling over the nature of change recently, in the context of a couple of programmes I am delivering in the near future. And I noticed the Grinch in me getting irritated. For a while, I couldn’t quite place why I felt inclined to start lobbing Xmas puddings and dumplings around, and then I had a minor epiphany. It isn’t just one thing that was bugging me, but several. So here are my (current) Top 5 Change Bugbears:

1: The ‘Thingy-fication’ of Change

Big, hairy & hungry...

Big, hairy & hungry…

My personal pet hate: “Landing ‘The Change'”. Or nearly as irritating is the invocation that “We need to deliver ‘The Change'”. Change mayappear big, scary, horny, thorny and prone to mood swings. And it is not a thing or beast, wheeled inon casters at the start of a project and wheeled out at the end. Or, to extend the metaphor, wheeled in, plugged in, configured and then ‘Job Done‘ stickers slapped all over it. Yes some change is hard (infrastructure, IT etc), and human change is about patterns of conversation, stories, hopes, fears, expectations, assumptions, behaviour, emotion, feelings and exist before, during and after any change programme. The nature of these may – or may not – change, and one thing they are not is A Thing.


2: People Can be Changed
That screaming you hear is me. No. Once you start believing that you have the power to change people, your programme is well on the way to being doomed.  You can influence people’s behaviour, and talk to and with them about what you want to be different, you can change the conditions (e.g. re-negotiate how people work, how people are rewarded, or the consequences of non-compliance), that is all up for grabs. And last time I checked, it is remarkably difficult to prize open a human skull and re-wire it to a specific requirement.


3: Change is linear
This ties in with #1. Much as many organisations, leaders and change consultants (I have been one, and am half-German & like a bit of order so include myself in this) would like to believe, change in human systems is anything but linear. A quick search on the interweb brings up a mass of linear or implicitly linear models of change. They may aid thinking up to a point, but held too tightly and the reality of working with people can quickly bring the change leader up close and personal with what actually happens when change and human collide.

4: Well, That’s the Change Done
A number of times in my career, as employee and consultant, I have heard leaders (and it is typically them) say that a programme is done, dusted, over. And, in reality, for them it may be. Yet the ripples of organisational change, particularly at individual level, can be felt long after a programme has ended and the change team has been disbanded.

5: Consultation that is not consultation
If you are not really up for hearing what your people think and want, don’t pretend you do. Tell them that what is coming is non-negotiable. The alternative is dis-honest, deceitful and kills any trust and credibility you may have had previously, and it will take a long time to win that back, if you ever do.

So what’s the point of all this?
I do not want to advocate any particular alternative to the notion that organisational change is Newtonian, about cause & effect, predictable and has an end point. And as Linda Holbeche highlights in Understanding Change,  the complexity of modern organisations, the environment they operate in and the hypercompetition they increasingly face mean organisations need to thing about change differently. Added to this, advances in social technology are fundamentally redefining the relationships between client and customer and employee and employer. All of these factors, and many more, point to the absurdity of the above. As leaders and practitioners, we need to be a little less certain and lot more humble in our belief that we know the answers.